17th-century site launches state's preservation plan

Effort begins to save imperiled `treasures'

April 20, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The remains of St. John's House are crumbling, and with them go the last traces of the 1638 building where a Marylander cast the first votes by a black man in any New World legislature.

The 361-year-old archaeological site, on the campus of St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland, has been designated as the first in a series of endangered objects and places nominated to compete for preservation grants under the new "Save Maryland's Treasures" campaign.

The effort is sponsored by the Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000, and a coalition of state agencies, nonprofit organizations and private corporations. At least $450,000 in grants will be awarded beginning early next year.

Proposals that don't receive grants under the "Treasures" program are expected to become part of a statewide inventory of high-priority preservation projects for future funding.

On Saturday, Maryland History Day, St. John's House became the program's first featured "Treasure of the Month." Other nominations are being sought from the state's schoolchildren, preservationists, museums, libraries, civic groups and the public.

The two-story wooden plantation house was built by John Lewgar, the colony's first secretary of state, four years after the first English settlers arrived at St. Mary's City. In 1678, it became the home of Gov. Charles Calvert, later the third Lord Baltimore.

As one of the largest buildings in the colony -- 50 feet by 22 feet -- it also played host to Maryland's Assembly, the governor's council and the provincial court from 1639 until the first State House was built in 1676.

It was in the St. John's parlor, in 1648, that Margaret Brent made a famous appeal -- as a citizen and landowner who was a woman -- for a vote in the Assembly. She was denied, based on her gender.

It was also there, in 1642, that Mathias de Sousa, a former indentured servant of African and Portuguese descent, became the first black man to serve in a New World legislature. A treaty with a delegation of Susquehannock Indians also was signed at St. John's.

The house declined after the capital was moved to Annapolis in 1698, but it served as the St. Mary's County seat until 1708. Soon after that, it was demolished. It vanished, with the rest of the old capital, beneath farmers' fields.

St. John's chimney base, cobbled foundation and stone cellar walls were discovered and excavated in the 1970s by Historic St. Mary's City archaeologists. Left exposed under a temporary shelter so that visitors could see the outlines, they have suffered from the elements.

"There's been some decay of the original brick chimney base, some crumbling. We need to stop that," said Henry Miller, research director at Historic St. Mary's City. Ground water has undermined the stone cellar walls.

A study of the problems has begun, assisted by a $15,000 grant from the National Park Service. But more money will be needed. "We need to have a real building [over the site] with climate control," Miller said.

Historic St. Mary's City and St. Mary's College are collaborating on plans for the site, "so that school kids, the public, can come in and see and learn about this important place in our history," Miller said.

State Historic Preservation Officer J. Rodney Little said the public is invited to nominate other sites and objects for preservation, by mail, or at the "Treasures" Web site (Maryland2000.org). All reasonable nominations will be posted on the site, he said.

Information: 1-877-MD2-0001.

Pub Date: 4/20/99

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